Hidden Behind Time: A New Way to Recapture Lost Images

173872_web
This daguerreotype was thought lost to the ages until rapid-scanning micro-X-ray fluorescence imaging analyzed the plate. Courtesy Western University of Ontario.

By University of Western Ontario

Art curators will be able to recover images on daguerreotypes, the earliest form of photography that used silver plates, after a team of scientists led by Western University learned how to use light to see through degradation that has occurred over time.

Research published in June 2018 in Scientific Reports—Nature includes two images from the National Gallery of Canada’s photography research unit that show photographs that were taken, perhaps as early as 1850, but were no longer visible because of tarnish and other damage. The retrieved images, one of a woman and the other of a man, were beyond recognition.

“It’s somewhat haunting because they are anonymous and yet it is striking at the same time,” said Madalena Kozachuk, a Ph.D. student in Western’s Department of Chemistry and lead author of the scientific paper.

“The image is totally unexpected because you don’t see it on the plate at all. It’s hidden behind time,” continues Kozachuk. “But then we see it and we can see such fine details: the eyes, the folds of the clothing, the detailed embroidered patterns of the tablecloth.”

The identities of the woman and the man are not known. It’s possible that the plates were produced in the United States, but they could be from Europe.

For the past three years, Kozachuk and an interdisciplinary team of scientists have been exploring how to use synchrotron technology to learn more about chemical changes that damage daguerreotypes.

Invented in 1839, daguerreotype images were created using a highly polished silver-coated copper plate that was sensitive to light when exposed to an iodine vapor. Subjects had to pose without moving for two to three minutes for the image to imprint on the plate, which was then developed as a photograph using a mercury vapor that was heated.

Kozachuk conducts much of her research at the Canadian Light Source (CLS) and previously published results in scientific journals in 2017 and earlier this year. In those articles, the team members identified the chemical composition of the tarnish and how it changed from one point to another on a daguerreotype.

“We compared degradation that looked like corrosion versus a cloudiness from the residue from products used during the rinsing of the photographs during production versus degradation from the cover glass. When you look at these degraded photographs, you don’t see one type of degradation,” says Ian Coulthard, a senior scientist at the CLS and one of Kozachuk’s co-supervisors. He is also a co-author on the research papers.

This preliminary research at the CLS led to today’s paper and the images Kozachuk collected at the Cornell High Energy Synchrotron Source where she was able to analyze the daguerreotypes in their entirety.

Kozachuk used rapid-scanning micro-X-ray fluorescence imaging to analyze the plates, which are about 7.5 cm wide and identified where mercury was distributed on the plates. With an X-ray beam as small as 10×10 microns (a human scalp hair averages 75 microns across) and at an energy most sensitive to mercury absorption, the scan of each daguerreotype took about eight hours.

“Mercury is the major element that contributes to the imagery captured in these photographs. Even though the surface is tarnished, those image particles remain intact. By looking at the mercury, we can retrieve the image in great detail,” said Tsun-Kong Sham, Canada Research Chair in Materials and Synchrotron Radiation at Western University. He also is a co-author of the research and Kozachuk’s supervisor.

This research will contribute to improving how daguerreotype images are recovered when cleaning is possible and will provide a way to seeing what’s below the tarnish if cleaning is not possible.

173873_web
What scanning revealed: A Victorian beauty, now no longer forgotten. Courtesy Western University.

The prospect of improved conservation methods intrigues John P. McElhone, recently retired as the chief of Conservation and Technical Research at the Canadian Photography Institute of National Gallery of Canada. He provided the daguerreotypes from the Institute’s research collection.

“There are a lot of interesting questions that at this stage of our knowledge can only be answered by a sophisticated scientific approach,” said McElhone, another of the co-authors of today’s paper. “A conservator’s first step is to have a full and complete understanding of what the material is and how it is assembled on a microscopic and even nanoscale level. We want to find out how the chemicals are arranged on the surface and that understanding gives us access to theories about how degradation happens and how that degradation can possibly or possibly not be reversed.”

As the first commercialized photographic process, the daguerreotype is thought to be the first “true” visual representation of history. Unlike painters who could use “poetic license” in their work, the daguerreotype reflected precisely what was photographed.

Thousands and perhaps millions of daguerreotypes were created over 20 years in the 19th century before the process was replaced. The Canadian Photography Institute collection numbers more than 2,700, not including the daguerreotypes in the institute’s research collection.

By improving the process of restoring these centuries-old images, the scientists are contributing to the historical record. What was thought to be lost that showed the life and times of people from the 19th century can now be found. Ω

Buntings for a Bon Vivant King

“For to him above all was life was good,
Above all he commanded, her abundance full-handed.”—Rudyard Kipling, 1910

s-l1600
Albumen print of the Windsor, Ontario Post Office, in May 1910. Ann Longmore-Etheridge Collection.

In 1910, Dr. William L. Bates of Sioux City, Iowa, took the boat The Florida on a meandering holiday. One of his stops was Windsor, Ontario, Canada. While there, he photographed the Windsor Post Office, located at Ouellette Avenue and Pitt Street. Bates found the public building draped in mourning after the death of British King Edward VII, who had passed away 6 May. A ladder was propped against one side of the building indicating that the mourning swags were in of the process of being raised, so likely this image was captured within a day or so of the king’s demise.

King Edward VII was born Prince Albert Edward, Prince of Wales, second child and eldest son of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha, on the morning of 9 November, 1841. “Our little boy is a wonderfully strong and large child, with very large dark blue eyes, a finely formed but somewhat large nose, and a pretty little mouth,” wrote Victoria to her uncle, Leopold, King of the Belgians, on 29 November. “I hope and pray he may be like his dearest Papa.”

Sadly, “Bertie,” as he was known amongst his family, was little like his erudite, brilliant, moral father or his paragon elder sister, Princess Vicky. Bertie strove to please his parents, who had devised a strict educational program for the heir to the throne, but the boy could never rise to the tonnage of their expectation. Once the grown prince matriculated to Oxford and Cambridge, however, he performed well as a student, giving the lie to his family’s belief that he was somewhat mentally deficient.

Wedding_of_Albert_Edward_Prince_of_Wales_and_Alexandra_of_Denmark_1863
Alexandra and Bertie on their wedding day. Carte de visite courtesy of the Royal Collection Trust.

Bertie was personable, genial, and inclined to a military life that his mother flatly vetoed. He did not protest his parents’ wish that he marry the beautiful and fashionable Princess Alexandra of Denmark, but he chose to lose his virginity in Ireland to actress Nelly Clifden, earning a scalding rebuke by his ailing father, “To thrust yourself into the hands of one of the most abject of the human species, to be by her initiated into the sacred mysteries of creation, which ought to be shrouded in holy awe until touched by pure & undefiled hands!”

Prince Albert died only a fortnight later and the devastated Queen blamed her son for godlike Albert’s ultimate mortality. She wrote of Bertie to her daughter Vicky, “I never can, or shall, look at him without a shudder.”

The Prince of Wales married his Danish bride in 1863, and the affection between them resulted in the birth of six children. However, Bertie was incapable of fidelity and took a series of mistresses whom his wife appeared to accept—possibly because Alexandra’s health was badly compromised by childbirth. A post-natal case of rheumatoid fever left her with a limp and hereditary deafness increasingly set in. This did not stop her, however, from undertaking royal appearances for her mother-in-law and being adored by the British people.

1415186884370_Image_galleryImage_Picture_shows_Four_Genera
Four generations of British monarchs (left to right): Bertie’s son, Prince George (the future King George V); Queen Victoria; Bertie’s grandson Prince Edward (the future King Edward VIII); and Bertie (the future Edward VII).

Edward traveled extensively as Prince of Wales, greatly enjoying his good will missions and state visits and generally winning hearts. The conasseur of good times put on weight as he aged and by his mother’s death, 22 January, 1901, Bertie had become a portly, dapper, silver-bearded gentleman with his own grandchildren around him. In an early act as king, he donated his childhood home, Victoria and Albert’s Osbourne on the Isle of Wight, to the British people—almost certainly because the place revived unpleasant memories—and chose to reign as Edward VII rather than Albert Edward I, as his mother had desired.

9bf1b276786eca2df19e009598fe493e
In 1907, the King posed for an autochrome image in Strathspey, Scotland. He was the first British monarch to be photographed in color. Courtesy Rothschild Archives.

Bertie and his wife were crowned King Edward VII and Queen Alexandra 9 August, 1902. His reign lasted just nine years and a few months, but the time came to be defined by his name—the Edwardian era. It is today recalled fondly as a golden age before two world wars radically reshaped both the map and the souls of humanity.

By 1907, decades of smoking had ruined the King’s lungs and he had developed cancer on his nose that was treated with radium. In May 1910, he had one or more heart attacks and died at the approach of midnight on the 6th, aged 69. Two weeks later, his funeral was the last great gathering of European royalty, many of whom would not survive the coming decade with their kingdoms intact. Bertie was buried in St. George’s Chapel, Windsor, and there lies today with Alexandra at his side.

As the king reposed in state at Westminster, a poem by Henry Scott-Holland was read for the first time during a sermon at St. Paul’s, encapsulating the affable man to those he loved:

“Death is nothing at all.
It does not count.
I have only slipped away into the next room.
Nothing has happened.

“Everything remains exactly as it was.
I am I, and you are you,
and the old life that we lived so fondly together is untouched, unchanged.
Whatever we were to each other, that we are still.

“Call me by the old familiar name.
Speak of me in the easy way which you always used.
Put no difference into your tone.
Wear no forced air of solemnity or sorrow.

“Laugh as we always laughed at the little jokes that we enjoyed together.
Play, smile, think of me, pray for me.
Let my name be ever the household word that it always was.
Let it be spoken without an effort, without the ghost of a shadow upon it.”Ω

V0042567 King Edward VII on his deathbed in Buckingham Palace in 1910
Edward on his deathbed, drawn by Sir Luke Fildes.